December 4, 2013

Department Chairs Say No Preparation Enough for the ‘Demanding’ Role

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Transitioning from solely being a professor to being the head of a university department is often a difficult task, as many aspects of the job can only be learned over time, Cornell professors say.

Like professors quoted in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, many department heads at Cornell said that although their job remains primarily academic, taking on a chair position comes with unique challenges.

English department chair Prof. Roger Gilbert said the position of the department chair is ultimately one that can only be learned on the job.

“Being chair is at times a very demanding job, one that most academics are neither trained nor temperamentally inclined to do,” he said.

Echoing his sentiments, sociology department chair Prof. Mabel Berezin said she believes that no faculty member is ever truly “prepared” to become a department head. At the same time, some professors, she said, “are [probably] more suitable to the role than others — patience and organizational creativity is a large part of it.”

Prof. Dennis Miller Ph.D. ’78, food science department chair, agreed, saying he “did not feel prepared” for being a department chair when he initially accepted the role. He emphasized that chairs retain professorial responsibilities while serving as academic heads.

“Here in CALS, department chairs maintain active teaching, research, and/or extension programs while serving as department chair,” he said. “I consider myself a faculty member first and department chair second.”

Gilbert said that his main role as a department chair has remained fairly consistent throughout his term.

“The most essential parts of the job haven’t changed all that much over time: the key responsibilities are hiring new faculty, supporting and reviewing current faculty, and planning the curriculum,” he said.

Prof. Natlie Melas, chair of the comparative literature department, said that formalized training for the job is extremely difficult because of its specialized nature.

“The differences between departments are great enough that it’s hard to imagine any formal training that would actually prepare future chairs effectively for the challenges they’ll encounter,” she said.

Additionally, there has been a recent increase in managerial duties at Cornell due to the administration’s emphasis on assessing “student learning and faculty productivity.”

The majority of the preparation for the job occurs after one becomes department head, according to Prof. Ross Brann, chair of the near eastern studies department.

“Most of us learn on the job and turn to mentors for guidance,” he said. “I was … promoted to assistant professor and appointed as department chair at the same time but did not have so much as a clue about chairing.”

Brann said a major part of being a department chair is serving as a mentor to newer faculty. The job’s “managerial demands” are higher today than ever before, he added.

“My most important responsibilities include sustaining and transmitting to younger colleagues a department culture that strives for excellence in research, teaching and advising worthy of Cornell and our students,” he said.

Berezin also said that fostering close ties between faculty members is a major component the job.

“That’s the fun part of being chair — keeping one’s faculty relatively happy and productive,” she said.

Melas noted that she has seen an overall “trend towards bureaucratization” within academic departments in the University.

“In the future a chair’s job might be to protect the academic mission of departments … from the excesses of bureaucratic standardization, but we’re not there yet,” she said.

As the chair of the English department, Gilbert said part of his work now includes serving as an advocate of pursuing an education in the humanities.

“We’re having to be more aggressive in making a case for the value of humanities education both as career preparation and intellectual enrichment,” he said.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misspelled Prof. Mabel Berezin’s name and incorrectly identified Prof. Ross Brann as “Robert” Brann. The errors have been corrected.